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By The Commentators

Questions for Experts

By The Commentators Posted April 22, 2014 at 9:26 am

This is Lew Margolis.

Many members of the university community, as well as outside commentators, have expressed puzzlement at the recently released external reviews of reading test data for some UNC students who played football and basketball. I know that many would agree that standardized test results are only one way – an admittedly imperfect way – to assess educational abilities, so the laser-like focus on the validity or lack of validity of the limited data reviewed by external experts seems like a distraction from one of the key questions that great universities must face. Namely, is it possible, both practically and ethically, to combine the highest academic standards with the highest athletic standards for football and men’s basketball, given the singular burden of revenue generation for these two sports? It is difficult to see how earning profits from football and men’s basketball aligns with the university’s mission of advancing scholarship, research, and creativity.

Without stepping into the statistical quagmire, I would like to raise two points from a scholarly perspective. First, as we repeatedly remind our students, it is important to ask clear, well-constructed questions. What exactly were the outside experts asked to do? There appear to be six questions that the experts addressed; however, what context, if any, was provided? How was their charge framed? For example, were they asked to refute a hypothesis or to create hypotheses of their own? At least one expert, for example, did re-write one of the questions.

Second, the language describing the relationship between UNC and the experts seems ambiguous. Did the university seek outside experts or did the university hire outside experts? How many experts were solicited, but declined to participate? Many scholars serve as paid consultants; it is an important and respected way to contribute to addressing societal questions. We should be explicit, however, about the potential conflicts of interest inherent in these financial relationships. Indeed, the university has elaborate review mechanisms to try to make potential conflicts explicit and to assure that they do not unduly influence the validity of the promised work. To be absolutely clear, I am not suggesting in any way that the work of these experts was tainted, but only that the university has a responsibility, from a scholarly perspective, to be clear about the relationships.

Perhaps the greatest contribution that universities have made to society over the past 1,000 years is to develop and defend scholarly rigor in framing questions and defining methods to answer those questions. The light in lux et libertas, the UNC motto, reminds us, indeed compels us, to ask good questions in a rigorous way.

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